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Commerce Department Issues New Rule to Tighten Gun Exports

The new rule makes it harder for gun makers to export semi-automatic weapons to high-risk countries

Today, the U.S. Department of Commerce published an interim final rule to tighten firearms export requirements, promote national security and foreign policy interests, and help reduce gun violence abroad. The rule comes after the department announced a pause on issuing new firearm and ammunition export licenses in the fall amid reports that the agency had helped U.S. gun makers export tens of thousands of semi-automatic weapons to “some of the most violent countries in the world” by easing export restrictions.

The Trump administration moved oversight of firearms exports from the State Department to the Commerce Department in 2020 after lobbying from the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the gun industry’s trade association, “making it easier for gunmakers to sell their wares abroad.” In 2019, before the transition, U.S. gun makers exported 317,482 firearms. But in 2022, gun makers exported 629,163 firearms — nearly twice as many guns.

how the Rule Works

The Commerce Department’s interim final rule is designed to give the agency more information to evaluate firearms export applications going forward. For example, the rule creates new Export Control Classification Numbers (ECCNs) to differentiate between semi-automatic and non-semi-automatic firearms in export applications and assess the lethality of the weapons U.S. gun makers are exporting abroad. Previously, the Commerce Department used only two ECCNs to categorize all pistols, shotguns, and rifles, regardless of how they operated. That meant AR-15s, which have been used in some of the deadliest mass shootings in the United States, were previously grouped with hunting rifles and reproduction muskets.

The rule also requires that export applicants provide purchase orders and other documents — including import licenses from destination countries that require them and passport information for individual recipients — so the Commerce Department can better assess the intended recipients of the weapons, especially in high-risk countries. Further, the rule formalizes an interagency working group headed by the State Department to “evaluate firearm diversion and misuse risks on a country‐by‐country basis.” These risks include firearms trafficking, terrorism, human rights concerns, political violence and instability, corruption, organized crime, and drug trafficking.

In other words, with the rule, the Commerce Department can more easily deny a shipment of semi-automatic assault weapons to a country where the guns have a high chance of being diverted to cartels, for example.

Notably, the rule establishes that the Commerce Department will now work from a presumption of denial for export applications to non-government end-users in 36 high-risk countries identified by the State Department. The list of high-risk countries will be updated annually. The Commerce Department also stated that it will revoke all current firearms export licenses to non-government end-users in those 36 high-risk countries on July 1.

In addition, with the rule, firearms export licenses involving countries that are not U.S. allies or partners will only be valid for one year instead of four, allowing the agency to more quickly respond if a country’s risk factors change.

the industry responds

Larry Keane, the NSSF’s senior vice president and general counsel, said, “The rule will simply shutter small businesses all across America by cutting them off from the export market, resulting in the loss of good paying jobs.” But it’s unclear what small businesses Keane is referring to. A look at the most recent data shows that the top exporters of firearms are all large gun makers, including Glock, Ruger, Sig Sauer, Savage Arms, and Smith & Wesson. Ruger and Smith & Wesson alone reported net sales of $541 million and $479 million in 2023, respectively.

The NSSF also released a statement claiming the rule “is intended to hobble the firearm industry’s ability to compete in the international market under the false pretense of advancing U.S. national security.” But as the Commerce Department noted in the rule, the agency “identified specific cases in which lawful exports of firearms and related items were misused or diverted in a manner that adversely impacted U.S. national security and foreign policy interests,” including one case in which a U.S.-made firearm was involved in a political assassination, another where lawfully exported parts were used to assemble illegal firearms in Taiwan, and situations where firearms and ammunition were diverted to Russia, possibly to “support Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine.”

The rule further references a 2022 report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, which “identified concerns that the U.S. government is licensing firearm exports that fuel criminal activity and gun violence, enable human rights abuses, and destabilize government institutions…in Central America.” Additionally, limited data shows that at least 11 percent of all crime guns recovered and traced internationally between 2017 and 2021 — 18,749 firearms — were lawfully exported from the United States.

The new rule goes into effect on May 30, 2024, and the Commerce Department will accept public comments on it until July 1.

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